Before the livestream of the House Judiciary Committee hearing on a six-week abortion ban started on Wednesday morning, the feed was just white noise and a dated-looking collage of the Capitol building. The repetitive drone and 1980s a.v. club aesthetic were an appropriate enough introduction to what would follow, since there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to state intrusion on the right to an abortion and the corresponding spectacle of those efforts.
The specifics have changed some since 1973, when the procedure was made legal in every state—recent years have seen a shift from the tactic of trying to ban abortion outright to a more methodical and bureaucratic erosion of access and an embrace of the language of “women’s health”—but the basic premise is always the same: Your body is not yours.
The so-called Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017 is no different. A lot has been written in the last couple of years about the strategy of the six-week ban, with some arguing that the primary function of these bills is to distract from more consequential anti-abortion measures. And it’s true that 20-week bans, one of which already cleared the House in October, stand a much greater (though not guaranteed) chance of passing than the kind of proposal debated this morning. In states from Ohio to Arkansas, Republican governors have balked at the idea of trying to restrict access this early; even some anti-abortion hardliners see this kind of legislation as counterproductive to the cause of restricting legal abortion.
But I think it is a mistake to interpret a man like Steve King, the Iowa Republican sponsoring the bill, or the spectacle of a hearing like today’s, in terms of anything like discipline or strategy.
In his opening remarks, King made his objectives clear enough: try to ban abortion through whatever means you have available to you until you can ban it outright. This is the political equivalent of throwing shit at the wall because you know that at least some of it might stay there.
“It pains my soul to think of the countless babies killed since abortion on demand became commonplace on the unconstitutional decision of Roe v. Wade,” he said to start off the hearing, voice somber. Soon after, an ultrasound was shown and the sound of a beating heart was played for the chamber. A law professor from Yale University gave testimony in opposition of the proposal, and a law professor from Cleveland State University testified in support. Slavery was invoked as a national sin commensurate with abortion. Science and good medicine were used to both justify and impugn the basis of a ban that would cut off access to abortion before most people will know they are pregnant. The fact that similar bans have failed at the state-level was raised again and again. Women’s basic humanity, and whether or not that should count more or less than the presence of a fetal heartbeat, was debated. It was exhausting and pointless.
This bill will likely fail on the same terms similar proposals have failed, but soon enough, some new kind of abortion ban will emerge from Congress, this time without a presidential veto to stop it. Whether it’s a 20-week ban or a six-week ban, the issue could rise to the level of the Supreme Court. Which, if we want to talk about anything like strategy, seems like a good place to look.
King, still in his opening testimony, noted that the landscape was changing for the anti-abortion movement: The Trump administration was currently appointing judges across the country who will be hearing cases challenging laws like these. The president may even have one or two more Supreme Court vacancies to fill in the next three years.
That felt more like the point today, not some insidious effort to make a 20-week ban seem more moderate in comparison. It was congressional hearing as threat. It was a warning and a taunt. Bad things are happening, and worse will be coming soon.